Alex James: The Great Escape

'We were lucky to inherit sheep when we moved to the farm. They look nice.'
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The Independent Online

The glow of the taillights of Fred's Land Rover down by the sheep barn drew my parents and I in that direction as we took the evening air. It wasn't cold, and the moon was up. We've taken a battering recently and it was still soggy underfoot, but for the moment, palpably benign.

Fred was marching around purposefully in the dark. "That scatty one's had it, Gor!" he said and nodded in the direction of the place where he leaves dead sheep for collection. Then he led us into the huge shed where the January ewes are lambing. It's a tatty old L-shaped barn. One end is open, one wall's wood, another breeze block and the last, the one that makes the L shape, a down-and-out Duchess of a beautiful Cotswold stone wall, the recycled remnant an earlier building.

The shed has a magnificence about it. I guess you can always find beauty in anything, but beauty definitely wasn't put here. It just arrived, unexpectedly, when the thing was finished. The shed was actually built for cattle and, as they are bigger than we are, all cow stuff is king-size, so that tin pot palace radiates a church-like vastness. Holiness was in there too that night, if there was ever such a thing.

Despite the immensity, the place was cosy. The open end was barricaded with a makeshift wall of double-height, one-tonne hay bales that made the Cotswold stone look lacklustre. The gold stuff was knee-high and snug wall-to-wall. Plumped on top and nestling among it were a legion of fresh lambs and their mothers.

Most of the ewes have twins, but there have been a few triplets and one lot of quads. They rarely need help. I think Fred just likes being there. When they come out they're all ready to go. They're up on the bounce straight away. We were all smiling. Come to think of it, Fred's always smiling.

We were lucky to inherit sheep when we moved in here. They smell nice. They look nice. They taste nice. Sheep farming is quite an extensive, organic practice. The easiest way to do it is to let them run around outside in the summer and have them in the sheds lambing when it's cold and wet. There's no need to pump chemicals on to the fields to make the grass grow. It's all pretty wholesome and I have no doubt being a sheep couldn't be any better than it is for most sheep, whether organic or de-ranged.

"What about about your mate, old wotsit wotsit?" said Fred. That is how Fred refers to everyone on the television, as my mate. "Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall?" I hazarded. "That's the bugger," he said, "Gor!" and clipped me round the ear.

Poor old Hugh, he's having a tough time. He's right, though. Chickens farm just ain't glamorous. The nature of chicken farming is intensive and chickens, being birds, tend towards the extensive. If you're paying less than eight quid for a chicken, you can be sure you're giving your money to an arsehole, which is up to you, of course, but it's my New Year's resolution not to give money to arseholes.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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